Volunteers of America Delaware Valley helps our communities’ most vulnerable.
When things started to get tight for a single mother living in Blackwood, she and her children had no choice but to leave their home. After a couple of weeks, they came to a homeless shelter in Camden. “At first, I was skeptical about coming to the shelter because of the horror stories I had heard,” she says in a testimonial. “But it was better than expected. It was clean and a place for my children to rest their heads. It’s good we’re able to have a place like this to go instead of being on the street.” Now, this mother and children are living on their own and she is working toward her nursing degree.
Success stories like this are what keep nonprofit organizations like Volunteers of America (VOA) Delaware Valley going.
“What gets me up in the morning is the general excitement of seeing if we can change someone’s life today,” says Dan Lombardo, president/CEO of VOA. He’s been with the organization for 25 years. “I’ve been in social and human services all of my career, and the VOA is one of the most mission-driven organizations, but it’s also one of the most committed to working with those no one else wants to work with.”
The VOA’s services support and empower some of America’s—and South Jersey’s—most vulnerable groups, including homeless individuals and families, veterans, at-risk youth, the frail elderly, men and women returning from prison, people with disabilities, and those recovering from addictions.
The Delaware Valley chapter of VOA, headquartered in Collingswood, is one of 38 across the country. Serving South Jersey, Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, and also Delaware, the VOA has 450 employees and countless volunteers of all ages who put forward more than 40 programs in the Delaware Valley, from homeless shelters and senior citizen housing to mental illness services and meal distribution.
The VOA was founded in Philadelphia in 1896 by Ballington Booth and his wife, Maud. Booth was the son of Gen. William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army. Their faith-based mission was focused on “reaching and uplifting” the American people. This remains vital in the VOA to this day, as all programs are designed to not just help those in need, but empower them to reach their fullest potential with a goal to live and function in society independently.
Making a difference locally
According to Lombardo, the two biggest issues he sees in South Jersey particularly are poverty and the unavailability of affordable housing. “Cost of living is high in our area, and if you work a minimum wage job, it’s hard to afford housing, even in Camden,” he says. “A two-bedroom apartment can be nearly $1,200 a month, and even if you get government assistance, it’s often not enough. The cost of housing should not exceed 30 percent of a person’s income, and unless they are making $18 an hour, they are spending more than that on housing.”
Lombardo says the tent cities like the ones recently eradicated in Camden are symptomatic of the needs of society. The VOA’s statistics reveal a statewide homeless population of more than 23,000, more than 4,000 of which are children. Nearly 75 percent of occupants in the VOA’s family shelter in Camden are children.
“People are homeless for a myriad of reasons. They may have lost their jobs and been unable to keep up with bills, or they face addiction issues, and one of the most heartbreaking segments of the homeless population are veterans,” Lombardo says.
The VOA provides emergency housing through its Safe Haven and Family Shelter programs, such as the Aletha R. Wright “Vision of Hope” Center, offering services to 99 single adult homeless men addressing life skills, employment and housing, and the Anna Sample Complex in Camden, a 65-bed facility for families, which offers a variety of programs to assist women in developing life skills to become independent of the welfare system.
Home for the Brave is one of the newest additions to the VOA’s gamut of services, catering specifically to homeless veterans. This new 30-bed housing addition offers intensive case management with supportive services including job training and placement, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and health care.
Along with transitional housing services, the VOA’s professional staff works on finding housing alternatives for those in need. Lombardo says this includes exploring subsidies, housing vouchers, and the State Rental Assistance Program (SRAP), which he says he’d like to see expanded.
“People come to us seeking help either by reaching out themselves or through referrals from other community agencies,” says Lomdardo. “We can determine their eligibility for supplements and support, and find ways to get them back into the workforce.”
The VOA works with several local businesses that employ the population the charity services. “They are willing to take a chance on them and believe they deserve a second chance. Our staff supervises their employment, making sure they show up on time and do their job,” Lombardo says. “We value these relationships and the support from these employers is so important.”
He adds that many of these companies and others are major sponsors of the VOA’s fundraising efforts throughout the year. “Community partnerships really make us hum and they are a critical ingredient in helping people become successful in society,” he says.
The importance of volunteers
Despite having employees and a corporate structure, volunteers remain a key piece of the fabric of the VOA. “Volunteers function in so many ways, providing comfort or support,” Lombardo says. “We have church groups who offer Bible study or drive people to services on Sunday. We have a group that donates homemade blankets to the children and families living in our shelters. … Their roles take many shapes.”
The VOA’s Action Team is one particular volunteer opportunity geared toward high school students. The VOA partnered with the Major League Baseball Players Trust in 2002 to encourage high school students to get involved in their communities and help those in need. Recently, the local Action Team built a bodega at one of the senior citizen facilities run by the VOA with the help of the Philadelphia Phillies. “The seniors and the kids love it,” says Lombardo. “It’s amazing to see how a program like this can help kids grow and develop through giving back.”
VOA Delaware Valley Director of Communications Rebecca Fuller says Team Hope is another program that has grown immensely. “Team Hope is a great way for people to get involved through family-friendly events,” she says. “We post events on the website and include opportunities like building Easter baskets, making sandwiches for kids’ school lunches, or adopting a family at the holidays. We adopted over 500 families last year and wouldn’t have been able to do it without the volunteers.”
Fuller adds, “We are here to serve and we’re only too honored to have the help and we encourage people to come out and volunteer in any way they can. Our programs truly help the people living in your community, contributing to it as a whole.”
Lombardo sees the VOA’s work as an investment. “We’re investing in the people we serve,” he says. “The more we can help give them the ability to become active participants in society, the better off we all are.”
For information on any of the VOA’s volunteer opportunities or its services, visit VOADV.org.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 3 June, 2014).
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